Pearl Harbor Day

John F. Kennedy once reminded us, “A nation reveals itself not only by the men it produces, but also by the men it honors, the men it remembers.”

America has revealed itself.

Pearl HarborWe used to recall 7 December as Pearl Harbor Day, but this, along with so many other memorials to past conflicts, has ceased to be a day of national remembrance.

I personally believe that President Franklin D. Roosevelt wanted the Japanese to attack the United States; it was the only way he could convince the American people to support US involvement in another world war[1].  Roosevelt miscalculated, however.  He expected the Japanese to direct their efforts toward the Philippine Islands; instead, they broke down our door in the Hawaiian Islands —and this was a complete surprise to the Roosevelt Administration.

Approaching the Hawaiian Islands from the northwest, six Japanese aircraft carriers launched torpedo bombers, dive bombers, and fighters toward military targets early in the morning of 7 December 1941.  Their goal was to destroy the US Navy Fleet at Pearl Harbor —but the engagement also necessitated pre-emptive attacks upon all military air bases as well.  The attack came shortly before 0800; more than 90 US ships were anchored in the harbor, but what the Japanese wanted most were the eight battleships and aircraft carriers.

The Japanese attack was relentless for two full hours.  Japanese air forces involved 321 attack aircraft; 39 fighters were employed as protective air cover.  The costs to the Pacific Fleet were enormous: 21 ships were sunk or damaged, 347 aircraft were destroyed or damaged, two-thousand servicemen were killed, another one-thousand military and civilian personnel seriously wounded.  When it was all over, Roosevelt had the excuse he needed to enter into World War II.

In spite of the resulting damage at Pearl Harbor and at other locations in Hawaii, the courage and tenacity of our troops while attempting to defend themselves through several waves of air attack was of the highest order.

The initial attack was directed at six bases around the island of Oahu.  Navy patrol bombers were caught in the water at Kaneohe Naval Air Station.  At the Army’s airbases at Wheeler and Hickam Air Fields, the Marine airfield at Ewa, and the Navy’s Ford Island Air Station, rows of closely parked aircraft, concentrated to protect them from the possibility of sabotage, were transformed into heaps of useless wreckage.  The attack on the airfields had barely started before the first bombs and torpedoes were loosed against the sitting targets of battleship row.  Within minutes most of the battleships at the Ford Island moorings had been hit by one or more torpedoes and bombs.  Even if the Japanese had withdrawn within an hour after the commencement of their attack, the damage inflicted would still have been awful.

The Americans took a licking, but not without one hell of a fight.  Boatswains sounded “Call to Arms,” and “General Quarters;” Navy crewmembers responded immediately, reporting to their battle stations.  Fire control parties immediately began to fight the fires, gun crews began to return fire with everything available to them, in some cases, even as the ships sunk to the bottom of the harbor.  Some men died even before they realized that their ship was under attack.

Ashore, the Americans responded just as quickly as their sea-based counterparts, but had far less weaponry to defend themselves.  There were no pre-staged anti-aircraft gun emplacements, no ready ammunition, and rifle fire, in most instances, was ineffective against flying aircraft.  Trucks rushed to armories and munitions depots, and machine guns were set up spontaneously.

Every Marine airplane was knocked out of action in the first attack upon the Marine Corps Air Station, Ewa.  Two Japanese squadrons swept in from the northwest at one-thousand feet, raking aircraft parked near runways.  Pilots and aircrew dashed to their planes, but the Japanese returned again and again to complete their mission of destroying all aircraft.

Marines of Marine Aircraft Group (MAG) —21 quickly recovered from their initial surprise and fought back with what few rifles and automatic weapons they had.  Weapons were stripped from damaged planes and set up with improvised mounts.  MAG-21’s commander was Lieutenant Colonel Claude Larkin; he was wounded in the first Japanese pass, but continued to coordinate the efforts of his men to meet the enemy head-on.

At Pearl Harbor, Japanese bombers dropped fragmentation bombs on Marine positions.  They were replaced by fighters seeking to suppress American fires and prevent any counter-attack.  Marine machineguns accounted for one enemy plane.  Three Marine airmen were killed during the attacks, a fourth died of wounds.  Thirty-three of 47 Marine aircraft were destroyed; all but two suffered major damage.

Ford Island’s seaplane ramps and runways literally became a shamble of wrecked and burning aircraft.  Marines of the air station’s guard detachment used their rifles and machine guns to beat off further enemy thrusts, but the dive bombers had done their job well and there was no need for subsequent sorties.  The focus of all subsequent attacks became the larger ships in the harbor.

The air raid drew instinctive reactions from the few Marines in the navy yard who saw the first enemy planes diving on the ships.  While the guard bugler mustered a majority of the men at the barracks and detachments of the 1st and 3d Defense Battalions, the early risers were already running for the armories and gun sheds.  Within six minutes of the attack, Colonel Harry K. Pickett[2] ordered his defense battalions to man machine-guns; eight of the guns had already been set up —and as more machine guns were hastily added to the defensive effort, men were sent to obtain the ammunition needed to operate them.  Rifle cartridges were distributed to hundreds of men assembled at the parade ground.  Colonel Pickett ordered the employment of 3-inch antiaircraft guns, dispatched trucks and working parties of the 2d Engineer Battalion to Lualualei, some 27 miles up in the hills, in order to obtain necessary munitions.  Colonel Pickett also directed Marine engineers to clear the runways at Hickam Airfield.

Twenty-five minutes after the initial attack, the Marines had thirteen machine guns in action and were able to claim their first enemy dive bomber.  In the next hour, twenty-five more machine guns were added to the mix.  Two more enemy planes fell victim to the 30 and 50-caliber weapons.  Colonel Pickett molded all Marine Corps personnel at the Navy Yard into a defense force, including an infantry reserve force, transport and supply sections.

In the course of the Japanese attack on battleship row and ships dry dock, 9 Marines at the Barracks were wounded; these and other casualties received treatment at dressing stations organized by Colonel Pickett, which included wounded Marines from ship’s detachments.  One-hundred eight sea-going Marines lost their lives during the attack, 49 more were wounded in action.

In total[3], Navy and Marine Corps forces lost 2,086 officers and men killed in action.  Army losses were 194 killed in action.  Of all the services, 1,109 officers and men survived their wounds.  Mr. Kennedy was right: a nation reveals itself not only by the men it produces, but also by the men it honors, the men it remembers.

Notes:

[1] Anyone believing otherwise would have to admit that Mr. Roosevelt, his entire cabinet, and the leadership of both houses of Congress were all unaware of Japan’s history dating back to the late 1890s.  Sneak attack is what the Japanese were known for in their every military effort.  Who in their right mind could have discounted another “surprise” attack after 1940?

[2] Major General Harry K Pickett, USMC was born in South Carolina; he graduated from the Citadel in 1911, accepted a Marine Corps commission in 1913, and had the distinction of war time service on the first day of two world wars.  In 1939, he was charged to survey the defenses of the Pacific Islands (Midway, Wake, Johnston, and Palmyra); he recommended enhancement of the defensive posture of these islands, which was undertaken before the Japanese attack at Pearl Harbor.  On 7 December 1941, Pickett was assigned as the Commanding Officer, Marine Barracks, Hawaii.  He also served collateral duties as Commander, Marine Forces, 14th Naval District, and Assistant Operations Officer under Admiral Kimmel.  General Pickett passed away aboard RMS Caronia in India in 1959.

[3] Japanese loses were considerably lighter.  Enemy carriers recovered all but 29 aircraft.  The Japanese lost five midget submarines and no more than 100 men killed in action.

13 thoughts on “Pearl Harbor Day”

  1. Mustang. Was it coincidence our Aircraft Carriers were not at Pearl or by design?

    I believe this was all a setup but not so much that we couldn’t retaliate at Midway. We would be at war by then and therefore the intended response was committed to.

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    1. It was just good luck or providence that the carriers were at sea. The Pacific Fleet Commander had issued a war warning; hostilities were imminent but there were missing pieces of the puzzle. The national command authority thought the first confrontation would be the Philippines, but no one was quite sure “when” that event would occur. I believe that God had his hand on America’s shoulder …

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  2. My friend Nate had some stories to tell about that day and his activities there.
    He remembered vividly the low flying open cockpit aircraft and the flowing white scarf one of the pilots wore while strafing.
    He spent that night in the rain at the base of a mountain with a machine gun and a couple friends and a new out of the crate radio waiting for the invasion.

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    1. Anti-war sentiment among the American people was significant in the decade following the end of World War I. Roosevelt stated on more than one occasion that he did not intend to involve the nation in another world war, assurances he needed in order to obtain reelection(s) … but his commitments to our allies was also significant, including the lend-lease program. How better to galvanize the American people than by goading Japan to attack the United States? As for the economy, every other strategy he employed was a complete failure; war would produce 100% employment. What conclusions should we draw from this?

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    2. Mustang, thanks….ALSO, I remember hearing several times that the nation’s economy improved with the production of more war equipment, not just employment;…I suppose that’s true , too? Steel, manufacturing, etc.

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  3. Well done.

    We need to be reminded now and then about the hits we have taken and how we pull together in response.

    At least the Japanese and Germans and the N Koreans and the N Vietnamese came out to fight instead of killing noncombatants with a truck or pipe bomb like cowards.

    And so it goes …

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  4. This is the first and only detailed accounting of the US Marines in action at Pearl that day. It was fascinating to read, sir. God bless the souls of the Leathernecks lost or wounded that day.

    I was elated to read also of your view (including footnote) about FDR. While I go further in my view of FDR’s manipulation of getting into the war ( in spite of his infamous campaign slogan of no American boy will be sent to fight in a foreign war), I find it hard to believe radio transmissions from the Japanese fleet and the observed training at Hitokappu Bay went totally ignored.

    Semper Fi.

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